Sunday, May 31, 2009

'Up,' Up, and Away …

When Pixar Animation Studios burst onto the scene in 1995 with “Toy Story,” the company’s claim to fame was producing the first feature-length film animated entirely via computer. What made the studio the gold standard in Hollywood, however, was not its sublime technical skill, but its storytelling. Subsequent films such as “Toy Story 2,” “Monsters, Inc.,” and “Finding Nemo” were meant for kids, certainly, but their exemplary craftsmanship appealed to adults through just the right amounts of wit, charm, and, most important, heart.

Over the past several years, however, Pixar has been inverting that relationship. Starting with 2004’s masterpiece “The Incredibles,” and then following in each successive film—2006’s “Cars,” 2007’s “Ratatouille,” and 2008’s “WALL*E”—the company’s outings have become increasingly adult-oriented, containing still enough thrills and laughs to hook the kids.

With “Up,” Pixar completes the transition. It may be an animated movie, but this latest gem skews decidedly older, and I guess the children can just deal with it and look at the pretty balloons, floating house, and talking dogs (yes, talking dogs). There may have been a lot of kids in my showing Sunday afternoon, but this certainly isn't for them.

But not for the typical reasons—there's no sex, drugs, extreme violence, etc.—just the simple maturity of its content. Ed Asner gives voice to its main character, Carl Fredricksen, an elderly, cantankerous widower who simply wants to be left alone in the house where he and his dearly departed Ellie shared so many cherished memories. If only the well-meaning little boy scout Russell would allow him to do that.

To give away more of the ingenious and inventive plot would be a disservice to anyone who has yet to experience this wonderful film, which deals with themes of growing old in a rapidly changing world, dreams lost and dreams rekindled, the dangers of obsession, and the pain and joy families provide. And all this set against the seemingly nonsensical backdrop of a cranky old man who ties a bunch of balloons to his house and floats away Wizard of Oz-style. Rest assured, Pixar delivers the visual goods, too, if a bit more subtle than previous outings; the animation here is exquisite and features heavy doses of the studio’s trademark sweeping vistas and “wow” moments.

To say “Up” is a great movie is like saying the sky Mr. Fredricksen's house floats through is blue. The only possible debate about this film is how great it is when compared to the rest of the Pixar canon. I’m not ready to answer that yet, but my guess is it floats pretty close to the top.

Grade: A

Side note: Interesting (astounding?) that two of the best movies I’ve seen this year both feature crotchety, gray-haired men and deal with almost the exact same premise: “Up” and “Gran Torino.” The academic paper I’ll never write would compare how these two masterworks deal with similar themes in such vastly divergent methods and mediums. I get the impression Mr. Fredricksen and Clint Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski would get along just fine.

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